by Paul Koberstein
knowingly putting children at risk?
d'Alene Basin children still showing high rates
of blood lead poisoning
would benefit from a cleanup in the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane
Basin more than children, especially the smallest
ones. Many residential yards throughout the upper
reaches of the basin are still contaminated with
high, unhealthy levels of lead dust. Soils on playgrounds
at schools in Kellogg and Osburn are still riddled
Alarming numbers of pre-school children continue
to suffer from dangerously high lead blood levels,
despite assurances from Idaho's governor and politicians
that there's no public health emergency.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne
is accused of misusing blood lead screening
data to justify a lesser cleanup in Northern
Studies show lead poisoning at levels seen in the
Silver Valley produce permanent, irreversible damage
to brain functions, and pervasive deficits in academic
skills. Very young children are vulnerable because
lead interferes with brain development, which occurs
most rapidly in children of that age, and no amount
may be safe from toxic effects. "The lowest
blood lead concentration associated with adverse
effects has not yet been defined," says Dr.
Bruce Lanphear, a nationally recognized childhood
lead expert at Children's Hospital Medical Center
Because there have never been any scientific studies
of childhood lead poisoning in the basin, no one
knows with any precision how many children are or
have been poisoned.
And yet last November, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne
said the children of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin
no longer face a health emergency from lead poisoning.
His interpretation of new blood lead screening data
led him to urge the Environmental Protection Agency
to drop its plans to clean up lead in and around
all contaminated residential property. Instead,
he called for a scaled-down cleanup coupled with
increased spending for economic development.
"Blood lead monitoring has shown a great improvement
this year. This is great news," he said last
November in Wallace, Idaho. "We never want
to have an Idaho child with an elevated blood lead
level. But it is very important that we all recognize
that we do not have a public health emergency in
the Coeur d'Alene Basin."
The data was based on blood samples taken from
children in Silver Valley communities around Wallace
and Kellogg. These samples seem to indicate a small
reduction in blood levels from previous years in
communities in the basin. But the samples are limited
in number and do not represent children in the community
as a whole.
"Screenings of this type should be considered
a 'snap shot' at one specific point in time,"
says Dr. John Rosen, a nationally recognized children's
health expert in New York who is a technical adviser
to the Silver Valley People's Action Committee.
"Screenings of this type do not determine the
actual prevalence of lead poisoning in any community.
Marc Stifelman, the EPA's lead expert, has warned
against drawing conclusions about the data Kempthorne
has cited. "It's not a study, it's not a survey,
it's just a service," he said.
Health experts say that to determine the true prevalence
of lead poisoning, one must choose a sample of children
that is representative of the whole community. The
study's design must take into account such factors
as age and season of the year, and be tightly controlled,
Kempthorne and other leaders seem so eager to dismiss
health concerns in the basin that the Spokane-based
Lands Council and the Sierra Club's Idaho and eastern
Washington chapter accuse them of knowingly putting
children at risk for lead poisoning while allowing
mining companies to dodge clean-up costs.
Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and conservation
chair for the Sierra Club's Northern Rockies Chapter,
says Kempthorne and the others are relying on data
"that has no real usefulness in determining
whether or not remediation has been successful.
There has yet to be an epidemiological, longitudinal
study of blood lead levels in the Coeur d'Alene
Medical and lead experts contacted by Cascadia
Times emphatically say that despite what Kempthorne
says, a serious health problem continues to exist
in the basin, though conditions are significantly
improved from a decade ago before the initial Superfund
cleanup began. These experts say the health problems
will persist until the area is fully cleaned up.
They say a more serious gap in knowledge about
the health in the basin is the lack a full-blown
epidemiological study of children and adults that
would pinpoint the number of people affected by
lead poisoning and charts their progress over time.
Many experts say a more accurate picture of health
problems in the basin can be drawn from the Human
Health Risk Assessment done in 2000 by the state
of Idaho and the EPA. This study shows that as many
as 29.5 percent of the young children in the basin
suffer from lead poisoning.
"From a public health point of view, even
as a snap shot survey, that can be considered to
be an epidemic," says Rosen. This study was
based on a model that takes into account such things
as lead concentrations in soils around homes, the
type of lead compounds detected and their behavior
in the body.
This study also shows that 80 percent of the cases
of children with high blood lead levels live in
homes with high concentrations of lead in yard soils.
The other 20 percent of the cases might also be
attributable to lead in paint, Stifelman said. He
says the full number of contaminated yards in the
basin is unknown; only one in five have been tested.
Lead levels in yard soil
and house dust correlate with blood lead
levels in children. The most toxic yards
and homes in the Silver Valley are in Wallace.
The numbers along the
bottom of each chart show the highest lead
levels in each community in the Silver Valley.
(Environmental Protection Agency)
The rate of lead poisoning cases among children
in the basin is far higher than the national average
among rural communities similar to those in the
basin. In fact, it is comparable to lead-poisoning
rates typical among the nation's most polluted inner
city neighborhoods, Stifelman said.
Kempthorne and business interests may have a financial
motive for dismissing the health risk to children
in the basin. They fear that elevated blood lead
levels would trigger a "Superfund" cleanup
throughout the basin, carrying with it a negative
stigma that allegedly discourages investment. They
worry that tourism plans for the basin, including
those of Duane Hagadone, owner of the Coeur d'Alene
Resort and newspapers in the basin, might falter
in the wake of negative publicity. Among their plans
is a scheme to allow riverboat gambling on the lake.
Many business and government leaders in the Coeur
d'Alene River basin agree with Kempthorne, including
Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, a former emergency room
doctor in Coeur d'Alene. "The valley is not
perfect, but there's not a spot on the globe that
doesn't have problems."
Ron Roizen, a Wallace resident hired by Shoshone
County to review the EPA's plan, claims the EPA's
plan to spend $92 million removing lead from homes,
yards, parks and playgrounds would benefit only
"between seven and 13 basin children (the EPA)
believes are at statistical risk from lead. The
bottom just fell out of EPA's claim that a health
risk exists in the basin."
In fact, the EPA claims that the number of poisoned
children is far higher, though not even the EPA
knows the exact number.
Roizen is also among many local residents, leaders
and school officials who claim that people cannot
absorb the type of lead compounds in the basin's
soils. The EPA agrees that the type of lead compounds
commonly found in the Silver Valley are harder for
the body to absorb than other types of lead compounds.
But the EPA says its models take the differences
into account. They show, for example, that small
children absorb lead into their bodies far more
readily than older ones.
Roizen, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, is among
many self-designated lead experts in the area who
oppose the EPA cleanup. He is a member of the Shoshone
Natural Resource Coalition, an organization funded
by the mining industry that has already filed suit
to block the EPA cleanup plan. (Other plaintiffs
are the cities of Smelterville, Wallace, Pinehurst
Even if the data quoted by Kempthorne and other
anti-EPA activists were statistically valid, it
still would show that average blood lead levels
among children in the basin are statistically no
better than they were in 1996. The data would also
indicate other serious problems, such as:
n 10.9 percent of pre-school children (under 5
years of age) had blood lead poisoning, defined
as levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per
deciliter (one-tenth liter) of blood. Children at
this age are more readily exposed to lead, as almost
everything they grasp goes into their mouths. They
may also be more vulnerable to lead's toxic effects,
as they brains and nervous systems are developing
n Average blood lead levels were highest among
3-year-olds. The 3 and 4 year old group also had
the highest maximum readings. By touting data that
include older children whose blood lead levels are
typically less, Kempthorne and others ignore lead
poisonings among the younger, more at risk, children.
n Within the existing Superfund area in and around
Kellogg, more than 7 percent had blood lead levels
of 10 or higher. The most heavily poisoned in this
group were the 2-year-olds, of which more than 12
percent had elevated levels.
Lanphear, the epidemiologist in Cincinnati, told
Cascadia Times that further studies of children
in the area are probably not necessary. "We
know enough now that we need to take action,"
The EPA is most concerned with blood lead levels
of greater than 10, but new peer-reviewed studies
raise alarms about lesser levels, Lanphear says.
He was the lead researcher on one such study released
in 2001 that showed there may be no safe concentration
of the metal in blood.
"There appear to be adverse effects even below
5 micrograms per deciliter," Lanphear says.
The study, "Subclinical Lead Toxicity in U.S.
Children and Adolescents," found "deleterious
and persistent effects of low-level lead exposure
on brain function, such as lowered intelligence,
behavioral problems, and diminished school performance."
The only way to make the basin safe for children
appears to be removing the lead from their environment.
The EPA plans to reduce lead contamination to 1000
parts per million. While those levels represent
an overall improvement, they may not be enough to
protect public health. At other lead-contaminated
sites around the country, the EPA has reduced lead
levels to 400 parts per million.
Lanphear says a new study in Utah shows that removing
lead from soil around homes reduces lead levels
in children's blood. According to the study's abstract,
for children less than 3 years old, blood lead levels
dropped by 3.5 micrograms per deciliter for every
1000 part per million reduction in soil lead concentrations.
Details of that study have not yet been published,
but Lanphear shared the study's abstract with Cascadia
Lanphear says that lead levels revealed in the
sampling data can significantly reduce IQ.
Other data confirms lead-related health problems
persist in the basin. The Idaho Department of Health
reports that substantially more babies born in Shoshone
County have low birth weights when compared with
all other parts of Idaho. Studies show that lead
poisoning can cause low birth weights. Low weights
at birth are often associated with other health
Tina and Harve Paddock,
former Wallace residents, found lead levels
topping 2,600 parts per million in their home.
The EPA removed more than a foot of topsoil
from their yard with levels as high as 2,900
parts per million lead, leaving yet more contamination
below a landscape barrier.
In January 2002, eight current or former basin
residents filed a class action suit seeking compensation
and medical treatment for about 100,000 people allegedly
poisoned by the lead.
"While the Environmental Protection Agency
looks at the long-range cleanup, we need to find
ways to help stop the damage of the lead contamination
now," said Steve Berman, the plaintiffs' attorney
from Seattle law firm Hagens Berman,. "We must
help parents identify kids in danger of reduced
intelligence, delayed development and a myriad of
other health problems caused by the contamination."
Plaintiffs Arden and Rita Bornitz live outside
St. Maries, Idaho, about 18 miles from the Bunker
Hill Superfund cleanup site. Their three children
all have elevated lead levels, possibly from playing
along the contaminated Union Pacific rail line (see
story Page 16). Other plaintiffs include Rog and
Toni Hardy, who live along the rail line.
"Like all parents, we want the best for our
children," Arden Bornitz said. "Our kids
are suffering profound health damages that we believe
are tied directly to lead poisoning. We know what
we are facing and are doing everything we can to
help our children, but we believe there are hundreds
of families that have no idea that their kids are
in danger of these health risks."
"For nearly one hundred years, the mining
companies created a legacy of illness for our children,"
he said. "As parents, we must hold them accountable
The Bornitz's youngest son, Kyler Bornitz, had
blood levels showing a lead content of 27 micrograms
per deciliter by the time he was 18 months old.
According to the complaint, some parents have suffered
significant economic losses in efforts to safeguard
Tina and Harve Paddock, former Wallace residents,
found lead levels topping 2,600 parts per million
in their home. The EPA removed more than a foot
of topsoil from their yard with levels as high as
2,900 parts per million lead, leaving yet more contamination
below a landscape barrier. Interiors were not addressed
at all. Before they purchased their home, a state
of Idaho study in 1996 found elevated lead levels
in the yard, but the results of these tests were
not disclosed to the Paddocks when the bought the
house in November 1997.
The Paddocks claim in a separate lawsuit that two
real estate agencies violated state and federal
law by failing to disclosure information about the
lead contamination. The Paddocks say that it is
not illegal to live in a house that is polluted,
but it is illegal to rent or sell a home without
disclosure of lead hazards. The plaintiffs recently
asked the court to move the case to Boise "because
of the hostile nature of articles in the press,"
Tina Paddock said.
"In a strange sense, the Paddocks were lucky
- they could move, although it cost them an enormous
price," Berman noted. "No parents should
have to weigh their children's lives against their
family's financial survival."
Berman stressed that medical monitoring is absolutely
essential to determine the true impact of the mining
"The blatant disregard for human health extends
far beyond dollars-per-acre," Berman said.
"These children must be protected from mining
waste - that's the real bottom line."
"The efforts at remediation over the years
have been successful," said Vicki Veltkamp,
a Hecla spokeswoman in a statement to the press.
"There is not a widespread problem. The remedy
is ongoing from the government, and the mining companies
are already doing all they can."
She maintains that relatively few people have been
shown to have high levels of lead.
"This is not an emergency health situation
here," Veltkamp said. "What they've done
here is overblown the problem severely and what
it does is give a negative public perception to
the Silver Valley that it's not a pleasant place
to live and that it's dangerous, and that's not
Meanwhile, the many homes, parks and schools remain
contaminated. One of the most contaminated sites
may be Kellogg Middle School, located within a hundred
yards of the former lead smelter site. The EPA's
data shows contamination of up to 17,000 parts per
million lead in soils in the school's playground,
yet there are no plans to clean it up in the coming
The EPA's $92 million cleanup would remove lead
from soils around homes, in parks and at schools
in the basin. The state of Idaho proposes spending
just $29 million for lead removal.
"The evidence is in," Kempthorne said.
"The Coeur d'Alene Basin is one of our nation's
greatest treasures, and the environmental ghosts
of the past no longer need to haunt us."
If only that were true.